The main themes of Triangle include class and division, profit, and progress.
- Class and division: The story of the shirtwaist strike and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire illuminates divisions between the upper and working classes, as well as between immigrant communities.
- Profit: Although the factory’s owners were themselves immigrants who had worked in the garment industry, they sacrificed their own workers’ safety for the sake of profit.
- Progress: While the Triangle fire demonstrated the failure of the shirtwaist strike to achieve real progress, it left a lasting legacy, contributing to labor reform and the transformation of the Democratic Party.
Last Updated on August 31, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1035
Class and Division
Class, ethnic, and gender divisions run through the story of the Triangle Factory fire; all those who died were immigrants, and most were women. The lack of protections for workers at this time meant that the working class were exploited by business owners, who forced them to work long hours in terrible conditions for very little money. The involvement of rich, socially progressive women such as Anne Morgan with the shirtwaist general strike in 1909 brought a great deal of money and attention to the cause but also limited what it could achieve. Many working-class women felt that it was hypocritical of members of the upper class to join a cause they were not part of after years of profiting from others’ labor, while many wealthy donors believed the union’s demands for a closed shop were too radical. Class fractured the strike, determining who held the power to create change and who did not.
Ethnic divisions among immigrant communities also played a role, as Italian women were not encouraged to join unions or even work in the same way that Jewish women were. This meant that factory owners tried to divide striking workers along racial lines to weaken the movement. Conversely, the waves of socially aware “new immigrants” who were arriving in New York around the time of the fire helped to change Tammany Hall’s politics, as Charles F. Murphy realized how important it was to appeal to this group if he wanted their votes. New immigrants and the Triangle fire thus became an integral part of the evolution of American liberalism and the modern Democratic Party.
At almost every point in the years surrounding the Triangle disaster, money was of the utmost importance to Blanck and Harris. Although they were immigrants themselves and remembered working in unregulated conditions, they believed that enough progress had been made and became focused on making as much money as possible. This is especially clear during their trial, when Harris testified to having employed anti-theft tactics such as raiding the homes of workers and searching each worker’s bag as they left the factory. When questioned, he admitted that the annual loss through theft was only about $25. The locked doors on the Washington Place side of the building prevented workers from taking breaks outside the factory or stealing materials without their bags being checked.
Blanck and Harris’s interest in profit is also evident in their opposition to their workers organizing into unions. In the general strike of 1909, they went so far as to bring in new employees to the factory in order to resist the strikers’ demands and managed to successfully prevent an agreement in which their workers would have to join the union. The Triangle owners’ attitude to fire also demonstrates that they placed profit above the safety of their workers, as installing precautions such as sprinklers would mean that they would not be able to set fires to their leftover stock and claim insurance, as they had in the past. Despite the fact that fire-safe factories had been a reality for decades, lack of enforcement allowed owners like Blanck and Harris to take...
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